New staging of Philip Glass' 'Akhnaten' equates monotheism with violence
Taking a pointed view of a historical subject, director Laura Scozzi's fully-choreographed interpretation of the opera by Philip Glass brings ancient Egypt into the 21st century and delivers food for thought.
Premiering in 1984, "Akhnaten" centers on the Egyptian pharaoh of that name, the husband of Nefertiti who reigned in the 14th century BC and imposed a new, monotheistic religion on his subjects by violent means.
In the story as set to music by American composer Philip Glass, this prophet of the sun-god Aten loses touch with his subjects and is deposed in a violent uprising after a 17-year reign. The central characters drift in and out of the story in the two and a half-hour opera of solemn and ritualistic music, singing texts in ancient Egyptian, Arcadian, Hebrew and in the audience's language.
With the diffuse plot lending itself to a variety of interpretations, stage director and choreographer Laura Scozzi focuses on a central issue of the 21st century: the effect of religious dogmatism on historical and modern societies.
In her fully choreographed story, Scozzi doesn't place the eponymous character in the spotlight — portrayed by the countertenor Benno Schachtner — but instead a young female dancer who first depicts an unruly schoolgirl, later a rifle-wielding religious fanatic and finally a member of Akhnaten's court before she follows the pharaoh into death.
The colorful staging with modern and historical costumes has scenery ranging from a living room with TV to Egyptian tombs: not so much an updating of the ancient subject as an interweaving of the eras. Akhnaten proclaims eternal truth from an edifice that by means of stunning video technology is erected and torn down repeatedly to depict a synagogue, an early Christian church and a mosque, as graffiti spray-painters proclaim the supremacy of their respective deities.
DW talked with stage director Laura Scozzi about the production and about her approach to music theater.
Laura Scozzi during rehearsals in Bonn
DW: Does one have to be familiar with the opera "Akhnaten" by Philip Glass to understand your take on it?
Laura Scozzi: Not really. I invented a new story. There's the intellectual framework of course, but I try to address the listeners' and viewers' feelings.
Does the music of Philip Glass lend itself well to your strategy of interpretation?
To me, his music is very close to life itself. His musical style always presses forward powerfully, like the cycle of life. It has incredible energy that can be expressed in the dancers' movements.
You've opted for a subject that is timeless yet occupies us daily: religion. What is your central idea?
It seems that at the moment when there is a God in whom one believes, one automatically divides the world into those who believe in that God and those who don't — and those others are then the enemies one must fight. Suddenly, messages of love and brotherhood morph into messages of hate. I'm focused on the different ways one can interpret a religious text, depending for example at what point one stands in his or her own life. Who it is reading a religious text and how he comprehends it can result in great differences in how it is understood.
Nefertiti and Akhnaten in busts on display at Berlin's Neues Museum
What role does the historical figure Akhnaten play here?
I see his religion originally as a cosmological one embodied by the sun. Yet Akhnaten personifies the orb of the sun, telling his people, "He spoke to me." So the sun is transformed into an individual god — and that, of course, makes this religion comparable to the other great three monotheistic ones — but on an archetypical level.
Is it necessary to update a historical subject in an opera in order for people to understand it today?
A staging of a theatrical work must react to today's experience and what moves us. But of course, the piece is named "Akhnaten," and we have to focus on that figure who lived three thousand years ago. For me it's important to look inside the piece for issues that reflect contemporary life.
Do audiences resist that?
I strongly feel opposition sometimes. As far as staging, dance, opera and theater are concerned, Germany is at the forefront of the avant-garde, also compared to other European countries. Yet I feel that opera is regarded as too sacred somehow. It's like a giant elephant in the room that one doesn't like to touch or to move around. But what propels artistic activity is a healthy non-respect for the rules, a violation of them. To me, that's essential.
I feel that your staging really fits the music. Did you have to totally immerse yourself in Philip Glass to achieve that? And do you go with the flow of the music, or against the grain?
I actually have a very strange relationship with music, because I came from a very unmusical family and never listened to it when growing up. For me, music is totally about feeling. It's the emotional connection. So I can either go with the music or against it, whatever makes sense.
Born in Milan, Italy in 1964, Laura Scozzi began her career as a dancer and choreographer but has emerged in recent years as a highly-acclaimed stage director on both sides of the Atlantic. Usually working with dancers, her productions are rich in imagery and sometimes address provocative or controversial issues such as refugees or religion.